Frequency (2000)

Directed by Gregory Hoblit

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I am not the write person to properly analyze and critique Frequency because I love it too much.  Like Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, it’s probably one of those movies that is really not that good, but, again, I love it too much to really notice.

The movie has, to me, a fantastic premise, but the more I think about it, the more I see how almost formulaic and cliche it is.  In 1999, New York detective John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) discovers he can communicate with his deceased father, Frank (Dennis Quaid), in 1969 through his father’s radio broadcast system.  It just so happens that, on the day John reaches his father, Frank is two days out from the fire that took his life.  When John, trying to convince Frank that he is in fact his son, tells his father what the decision was that killed him, his father listens and does the opposite, saving his life.

After that, John and Frank (both in their 30s) develop an instantaneous bond, one built on their father-son relationship but also on other shared interests due partly to their proximity in age.  But then, as you might expect considering there’s well over an hour left in the film, John discovers unseen consequences from having saved his father’s life.  In other words it’s the butterfly effect kicking in.

The most obvious of those consequences is that John’s mother, Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell), is now dead, and apparently she has been so for 30 years.  John realizes that there is a string of unsolved murders, all likely at the hand of the same unknown criminal, and his mother was one of those victims.

Now, time travelling movies all have to create their own logic.  The two most commonly used theories of time-travel in movies is the multiple timeline version and the one in which everything is predetermined, meaning that anything you do to change the past has only ensured that it happens as it already happened.  In the former, anything you do to change the past creates a new, parallel timeline which splinters off from the first timeline at that exact instant.  This is the logic used in Stephen King’s 11/22/63.

Frequency, though uses a blend of these two ways of looking at time travel.  First, anything that is done to change the past suddenly and magically affects the future, as if it was already that way from the beginning.  One night John and two of his pals are at a bar having a drink on the anniversary of Frank’s death.  At the same instant, 30 years earlier, we see Frank make the decision that will save his life.  As Frank lives, John suddenly realizes he survived, having been gifted years of new memories in the blink of an eye, and when he verifies with his friends that Frank didn’t die, they confirm it, as if it’s obvious.  Frank’s friend Gordo (Noah Emmerich) tells him (but mostly the audience) that Frank died 10 years ago because of lung cancer.  It’s clear that there is only one timeline or version of events, and that everything that changes in the past will be reflected in the present.  At the same time, John now has memories of both versions of events.  As he tells his father, he now remembers growing up with him but he also remembers him dying.  That would be a mindfuck if ever there was one, and I have to imagine these multiple timelines, one remembered and one only… hallucinated, would have to mess with your idea of reality.

After a long night of talking over the radio with his similarly-aged father, John still doesn’t realize that his mother is dead.  It’s not until he goes back to work and looks over the case files that he learns (or relearns) that his mother was killed in 1969 by a mysterious serial killer named The Nightengale.  After this moment I couldn’t help but think what else John has yet to learn or remember about his new life.

One of the reasons I love this movie is because I can imagine all the different directions you could take this story.  The movie focuses on the plot and the butterfly effect as John tries to instruct Frank on how to save Julia by investigating the murderer (using John’s present day case files as the leads), but another version could focus on John’s mental breakdown or simple struggle with what he’s done.  There’s a psychological thriller in here somewhere, and even though that’s not the movie we get, it made me excited to imagine nonetheless.  *The idea of there being countless story threads to explore in this movie make it clear why there is now a Frequency tv show based on this movie, which I have not seen.

So Frank goes one by one down the list of murder victims, supplied to him by John, in order to prevent their murders.  In doing so, The Nightengale attacks him, wondering why he’s following him.  The Nightengale gets Frank’s driver’s license, and he frames it at the scene of his next murder.  At the end of act 2, Frank is taken in for questioning on the latest murder, and the radio system breaks, severing the contact between Frank and John.

Now, act 3 is absolutely ridiculous in the ways of a lot of intriguing premise turned Hollywood action thriller movies are.  Frank isn’t just a firefighter acting as a vigilante, now he’s actually a badass.  A lot of this is unexplained, but this kind of thing happens all the time in movies when someone like Tom Cruise plays an office worker who can suddenly run, jump and fight like an MMA fighter when the plot calls for it.

But to me it all paid off when you have the sequence in which Frank fights the young Nightengale at the same time John fights the old Nightengale, and then… OLD FRANK SHOWS UP TO SAVE HIS SON’S LIFE.  Oh my god, if ever there was a fist-pumping moment, this is it.

It’s such a simple trick, to have Old Frank turn up alive, apparently having kicked the smoking habit that took his life in the previous version of events, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t catch me by surprise.

The movie then ends with a very tender but cheesy montage of the modern day family, alive and well, but at that point the movie could do anything, and I would be okay with it.

Some general notes, the movie’s first act is pretty long, around 40-ish minutes where a lot of first acts are 25-30 minutes.  There is a lot to set up in a movie like this (or any high concept story), as you have to first establish the worlds of each protagonist, 1969 and 1999, as well as pay off some of the set ups from 1969 in 1999.  So, for example, we have to introduce the nuclear family in 1969, including their Mets fandom and the way the parents respectively handle their son, and then we have to show the nuclear family in 1999, and the new set up acts also as a pay off for where things have gone wrong.  Most notably, Frank is dead, John still lives in the family home (next door to his best friend growing up), and John is a lonely alcoholic, having just been left by his girlfriend.

Then beyond that, we have to introduce the plot mechanism which will kickstart the story, aka the radio system which is discovered by a young Michael Cera of all people.  Then John and Frank have to talk to each other the first time, but obviously they wouldn’t believe who the other one is right away, so you have to establish, in their conversation, something which John can verify to Frank which he can then go see for himself to prove that John is who he says he is.  In this case John tells Frank what happens in the next game of the 1969 world series featuring their favorite team, the New York Mets.  What’s funny, the more I think about it, is that John was I think 6 years old in 1969, and he even says he has no real memories of his father, yet he apparently has an encyclopedic knowledge of the 1969 world series.  Anyways, he’s right, Frank gets a kick out of it, and then he and John talk again, with Frank still not quite believing his ears.  John then tells him how he died in the fire and why he died (he went left in the burning building when he should’ve gone right, which, I don’t know why John would know this or why anyone would know it, I mean the building blew up, so how could anyone have retraced Frank’s steps and decided where he went wrong?), and because of the Mets story, John has just enough credibility for Frank to believe him, even if he won’t admit it.

So then you have the fire, and it dawns on Frank that all the details are adding up, so he listens to John’s advice, and it saves his life.  That’s when we get the montage of him and John talking all through the night to start off act 2.

There are so many minor plotholes in this story, but none of it matters.  Just watching John and Frank talk all through the night was making me smile, and even watching John briefly talk to young John and young Gordo was great.  Then you have the absurdity but also the excitement of John talking his father through a murder investigation, trying to stop it before it happens like this is The Minority Report.  Hell, there would ten victims, so we could’ve watched John lead Frank through all ten, and each one could be it’s own little act of sorts, though that would be a little too repetitive, narratively speaking.

Another detail I loved is the fact that John and Gordo both live in the same houses in which they grew up.  Maybe that’s more common in other parts of the country, but movies sometimes do this thing where they paint a picture of a serene environment where even as things change, nothing really changes.  So even if John and Gordo both grew up, possibly grew apart, went off to college, fell in love, etc. they somehow still end up in the same place 30 years later and are still best friends.  It’s fantastic.

It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting, I guess.  And even that in itself is kind of appealing since in real life we know that things change so much.  Hell, John grows up to join the police, working as a detective alongside his father’s best friend, played by Andre Braugher.  What are the odds of that happening?  I love it.

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